Stanford Prison Experiment
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | September 11, 2021
Stanford Prison Experiment:
In 1973, Phillip Zimbardo and his colleagues designed an experiment to cast light on the brutality reported among guards in American prisons. Zimbardo was interested in the whether the cause was due to the sadistic personalities of the guards or was their behavior a natural reaction to the prison environment.
The infamous Stanford Prison Experiment took place in a makeshift prison designed in the basement of the psychology department at Stanford University.
Twenty four student volunteered to participate. The students were randomly divided into guards and prisoners. Zimbardo utilized the local police to make mock arrests of the "prisoner" students, process them at the police station and book them into "Stanford County Jail" in the basement of the psychology department.
The guards slowly became more abusive as the experiment progressed. The prison study, scheduled to last two weeks, lasted only six days. The mental toll of the experiment on the student prisoners became evident to Zimbardo’s girlfriend, Christina Maslach (now his wife of many years), and she persuaded him to shut it down.
Stanford Prison Experiment converted the psychology basement at Stanford University into a mock prison. Volunteer students were randomly divided into guards and prisoners. The guards became abusive after six days the experiment was shutdown early.
Zimbardo theorized from his six day experiment that situational forces have a great influence over behavior, perhaps, greater than dispositional forces.
"One of the dominant conclusions of the Stanford Prison Experiment is that the pervasive yet subtle power of a host of situational variables can dominate an individual’s will to resist" (Zimbardo, 2008, location 119).
Zimbardo explains that a host of psychological and social forces combine and can induce good people to do evil. Some of these force are deindividuation, obedience to authority, passivity in the face of threats, self-justification, and rationalization.
Criticisms of the Study
Ethically, the study cannot be reconstructed to test the validity of the findings. The design of the experiment was flawed. Zimbardo played an active role running of the Stanford prison, directing guards behaviors, and influencing outcomes. He lost objectivity through intimate involvement and all the findings are tainted.
Dispositions and Environments
The question underlying dispositional evil or situational behavior is an ancient one. Basically, we are referencing the nature-nurture debate. Zimbardo wrote, "people and situations are usually in a state of dynamic interaction."
The end behaviors are an interactive result of these interactions. Predispositions and strength of past and present environments complexly interweave to propel us towards one course of action or another. Perhaps, a uniform, a righteous cause, lack of oversight and a supportive cast of similarly conditioned officers is a deadly concoction in some situations.
A Few Words from Flourishing Life Society
After a few decades of intense research on human behavior, I am unable to identify a clear divide between situational forces and dispositional forces when a person commits evil acts. I'm left to wonder, "would I act the same if I lived under the same conditions from early childhood until the final precipitating events that led to the evil?"
We tend to attribute evilness to the dispositions of those we don't know or don't like, while leaning on situational forces when evaluating or own misdeeds.
While the theoretical questions posed by Zimbardo remain unanswered by the behavior of twenty four students in a make shift dungeon, the sociological and psychological implications are fascinating. The Stanford Prison Experiment brought attention to an important issue, not just about the criminal justice system, but about human behavior in general.
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Zimbardo, P. (2008). The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil. Random House Trade Paperbacks; First Edition